Peter Macon ripped through the air, on his way to an interview at the Guthrie Theater. He didn’t need the heavy sweater, jacket and black leather pants to augment his imposing size. But years of living in Los Angeles have made him susceptible to his hometown weather.
“This is where I fell in love with being an actor,” said Macon, who grew up in north Minneapolis and started acting at Children’s Theatre Company, Illusion and Penumbra theaters.
This is Macon’s first professional trip home since 2005, when he played the title role in “Oedipus” at the Guthrie. He is back to again attack a role of mythic proportions, “Othello,” in a production that opens Friday under Marion McClinton’s direction. The show also features Stephen Yoakam as Iago and Tracey Maloney as Desdemona.
Macon has built a substantial body of work, including five years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and in film and TV performances. Two years ago, he played August Wilson’s “King Hedley II” at Portland Playhouse, and McClinton directed him in “Drowning Crow” in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2004 production on Broadway.
“I’ve known Peter since he was 17,” McClinton said. “When I first saw him in full dreadlocks and part of a dance, I was floored by his presence. I went to him and no one else on stage.”
It was understandable, then, that McClinton first thought of Macon when the Guthrie asked the director to stage Shakespeare’s tragedy of love, jealousy and betrayal.
“There’s always a chance that Othello can come off unlikable, but Peter has this deep emotional well that gives him a way of connecting to an audience,” McClinton said. “He has a presence.”
Macon has often told the story of watching a Guthrie production as a teenager and getting it into his head that he could do this for a living. He soon drew rave notices in Twin Cities productions and in the mid-1990s headed off to make his way in the greater theatrical world.
“That high school kid?” he said, referring to himself as he spoke before a costume fitting at the Guthrie. “That guy is pretty happy.”
Macon first worked with McClinton when both men acted at Penumbra in “Pecong,” an adaptation of “Medea.” After “Drowning Crow,” Macon played Tom Robinson in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at Oregon. McClinton had to persuade him.
“I told him, ‘I don’t want to do this play,’ ” Macon remembered. “His sensitivity legitimated it, so that it didn’t seem like they were just recycling the play.”
Macon first performed “Othello” in 2008 at Oregon. He was directed by Lisa Peterson, who had staged “Oedipus.” Peterson last year directed “Clybourne Park” on the Guthrie proscenium and had her one-person “Iliad” produced in the studio. She is one of the directors Macon says he trusts implicitly.
“We have a vocabulary that we both understand,” he said.
A vulnerable warrior
The Guthrie production will be Macon’s third time around with “Othello.” He understands the Moor of Venice as a brilliant soldier, strangely comfortable in the panic of battle. Love, on the other hand, is new to him and his devotion to Desdemona leaves this great warrior vulnerable. Anything that corrupts his sense of passion for Desdemona destroys Othello, Macon said. The villain, Iago, understands this weakness and attacks.
McClinton, directing his first “Othello” (“a Shakespeare I felt compelled to do”), believes that the title character must at all times bristle with intelligence. If he was to pick a fault with productions he has seen, he said, it is that Othello is made to look gullible or less intelligent than Iago.
“It’s a lesser play if Iago seems to be duping Othello,” McClinton said. “The tension is drawn tight because this man Iago is trying to destroy is a man of great substance. I wanted Peter because his native intelligence shines through the role.”
Macon is glad to be playing opposite Yoakam’s Iago. There’s a generosity required of actors who are pitched against each other.
“I grew up watching these guys,” he said of Yoakam and McClinton. “They taught me what it was to be an actor.”
He’s enjoyed working back in the Twin Cities again. He’s able to see his mom and friends, though there isn’t a lot of spare time. He did get third-row seats at a Timberwolves game because of a connection he made. As he got ready to shove off for a day of work, he recalled the night a blizzard struck Minneapolis during “Oedipus.” The Guthrie held the curtain for 30 minutes and more than 70 percent of the audience showed up.
“I love Minnesota actors and I love Minnesota audiences,” he said.